115th Anniversary of the Great Galveston Hurricane

Galveston Hurricane Monument (Garthurdavis)

Galveston Hurricane Monument (Garthurdavis)

On the evening of September 8, 1900, a major hurricane struck Galveston, Texas.  It became the deadliest hurricane to hit the United States and altered the city forever.

The disturbance that formed the hurricane was first detected on August 27th by ships a thousand miles east of the Antilles.  It moved steadily westward and crossed over the Leeward Islands as either a tropical depression or tropical storm by the 30th.  It moved along the Greater Antilles, with the center passing either near to or over Hispañola and Cuba.  By the afternoon of Sept. 5th, the center moved over the Florida Straits.

Following the Spanish-American War, the United States Weather Bureau (USWB) moved its hurricane warning center from Jamaica to Cuba.  Although the Belén Observatory had carried on the work of Fr. Benito Viñes in forecasting storms in the vicinity of Cuba, the USWB decreed that only its forecasts would be carried over the telegraph.  The USWB forecasters expected the storm to recurve to the northeast, as many storms did near this latitude, while the Belén forecasters said their observations indicated the storm moved to the northwest and into the Gulf of Mexico.  Only the Weather Bureau prognostication was carried over the wires.

Track of the Great Galveston Hurricane

Track of the Great Galveston Hurricane (Unisys)

People living along the Gulf Coast remained ignorant of the presence of the storm for the next two days.  Several ships encountered hurricane-force winds in the Gulf but lacked wireless telegraph equipment and couldn’t communicate their observations to shore.  It wasn’t until a heavy swell was observed along the Texas coast, and high clouds began to obscure the sky, that it was suspected that a storm was approaching.  Isaac Cline, in charge of the Galveston USWB office, claims he rode up and down the Galveston beach warning people of the coming hurricane, but a later publication (Isaac’s Storm) calls this into question.  Nevertheless, Cline issued a hurricane warning a day before the sustained winds reached hurricane strength.  And they continued to climb after nightfall.  The sustained wind speeds were estimated to reach 145 mph (230 km/hr).  But it was the 15-foot (4.5-m) storm surge that caused the huge death toll.  It shattered the homes near the Gulf shore first, then turned their lumber into battering rams to smash buildings further inland.  It destroyed the rail bridges linking the island city to the mainland and cut the telegraph lines.  By morning, most of the city had been reduced to kindling, with the dead mixed in with the wreckage.  While Isaac Cline and his brother Joseph , another USWB meteorologist, survived the storm despite their home being destroyed, Cline’s wife was a victim of the hurricane.  Estimates of the number dead vary greatly, from 8000 to 12,000.  Whatever the true count, there is no doubt that it was the deadliest hurricane to ever hit the United States.

Survivors carry the dead out of the wreckage.

Survivors carry the dead out of the wreckage.

The survivors struggled to recover from the disaster.  With the telegraph wires down, word of the scope of the disaster took days to reach the outside world.  With the rail bridges smashed, it took even longer for relief workers to reach the beleaguered city.  They tried to dig the bodies from the debris, but had nowhere to bury them.  They attempted to cast the corpses into the Gulf, but the tides carried them back in.  Eventually, many bodies were burned in large pyres.  Disease was rampant among the survivors and fresh food and potable water were in short supply for months to come.  When the time came to rebuild the town, the city government decided not only to build a sea wall to protect them, but also to raise the entire city by 17 ft (5 m).  Intact buildings were hoisted up by jacks and dredged sand was piled underneath to support them at the new level.

Although the city did eventually recover, the economic center of the north Texas coast passed to Houston, several miles inland from the Gulf-coast town. Galveston was never able to recapture its preeminence in the area.